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Overrepresentation of Indigenous women in custody reaches historic levels in B.C.

Replicating ineffective systems not working, say advocates
The grounds of Fraser Valley Institution for Women, located on King Road in Abbotsford. (Vikki Hopes/Black Press Media)

Despite decades of warnings, the number of Indigenous women in both federal and provincial correctional facilities in B.C. has tipped to more than 50 per cent, an all-time high.

Based on reports from the federal Office of the Correctional Investigator, Dr. Ivan Zinger, this is the first time the numbers have come up this high in federal prisons, signalling a serious overrepresentation.

In the Fraser Valley Institution – the only federal facility for women in the province situated in Abbotsford – the range is even higher at 58 per cent according to statistics obtained from Correctional Service Canada (CSC). As of May 13, 2022, the Fraser Valley Institution had 71 women offenders and of those, 41 are Indigenous.

While inmates of Fraser Valley Institution are from all over Canada, women from B.C. and the prairies constitute a larger population in federal penitentiaries, say CSC spokespersons.

The CSC did not have readily available data to indicate where the incarcerated women in federal prisons hailed from, but said B.C. and Saskatchewan provided higher numbers. That is because the Indigenous population is higher in these provinces relative to their overall population.

The numbers in B.C. provincial prisons are also climbing and Indigenous women account for up to 41 per cent of the total female inmate population.

As of May 18, 2022, there were 93 women in provincial custody in B.C., 38 of which self-identified as Indigenous, confirmed the provincial Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General.

Out of this, 21 per cent (eight) women have northern B.C. postal addresses defined roughly as north of Williams Lake and are in custody at the Prince George Regional Correctional Centre, said the public safety ministry.

“The Indigenous women in provincial custody have been charged with or convicted of crimes against property, crimes against a person, or crimes that fall in the category of ‘other,’ which includes Criminal Code traffic offences, provincial Motor Vehicle Act offences, weapons, breach of conditional sentence orders, and drug trafficking,” the ministry listed in an email.

Socio-economic factors are huge determinants in understanding the crimes committed by most of these incarcerated women, explained Brigitte Bouchard, assistant deputy commissioner for women from CSC and Marty Maltby, the CSC Indigenous initiatives director.

Bouchard says a large number of women in federal prisons tend to be younger, coming from impoverished communities and having a background of trauma and lower education.

Regarding poverty, mental illness and substance abuse as criminal issues further contributes to inmate totals.

Most of the crimes they’ve been convicted of come under what Bouchard labels as survival crimes — financial frauds, gang ties and intimate partner violence, she added.

The vast majority of federal inmates serve a maximum four-year term.

Bouchard and Maltby have seen a steady increase in the last decade when it comes to the number of Indigenous people in federal prisons.

“While we have a responsibility in the organization to manage the time they spend in corrections, and to get them out and back into the community as early as possible, as safely as possible, the real challenge is the fact that we continue to see significant numbers coming into our doors,” said Maltby.

Parole violations and suspensions, which see women back in the system, also pose a challenge, he said.

“The reality is many of these individuals aren’t going back to communities and lifestyles that are necessarily safe,” he said, adding that broader issues need to be addressed.

This means looking at the entire criminal justice system, including the police and the courts.

Decades-long failure across systems

Dealing with an overrepresentation of Indigenous people in correctional systems is a three-decade-long failure, argue prison reform advocates.

In 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada’s landmark Gladue decision (more commonly known as the Gladue principles) acknowledged Indigenous overrepresentation. The Gladue principles ask judges to consider unique circumstances such as colonization and residential school backgrounds during sentencing.

But the practice is not uniformly applied outside of specific courts for Indigenous people, said Niru Turko, director of social justice and equity at the Elizabeth Fry Society. The Vancouver-based non-profit works exclusively with women and girls involved in the Canadian justice system.

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) call to action and the recommendations of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in 2019 noted the failure of existing structures to address over-representation in prisons.

“Despite the TRC call to action to reduce the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in custody, the numbers have risen by approx 18 per cent over the past decade, while the numbers for the non-indigenous population have gone down by 28 per cent in that same time period,” said Turko.

On May 20, the B.C. Prosecution Service (BCPS) provided policy changes in its guiding principles for prosecutors in its efforts to address overrepresentation in prisons. The prosecution service first started developing policies in 2017 to handle cases involving Indigenous people.

READ MORE: New BC Prosecution document guides against excessive incarceration of Indigenous people

“By revising several key policies and implementing new ones, the BCPS aimed to change the way it deals with cases that involve Indigenous persons: as victims, as witnesses, and as accused,” said BCPS spokesperson Dan McLaughlin in an email.

The province of B.C. acknowledged that rates of victimization of Indigenous persons, especially for Indigenous women and girls, are significantly higher than those for non-Indigenous persons. The prosecution service also recognized that wrongful convictions resulting from problematic evidence — mistaken eyewitness identification, faulty forensics, false confessions etc. — is a factor that needs to be addressed in this matter.

When asked about the failure to curb the overrepresentation of Indigenous women in provincial prisons and if the existing policies are ineffective, McLaughlin added the causes are complicated and diverse.

He said the prosecution service is just one actor in this complex process.

“Acting alone, we cannot eliminate systemic discrimination or the unacceptable overrepresentation of Indigenous persons in the criminal justice system,” McLaughlin said.

“Time will tell whether our efforts, and those of other actors in the system, will make a real impact on the overrepresentation of Indigenous persons in custody.”

But Turko said policymakers are working within failed systems and are yet to put wholehearted efforts and find solutions to reduce overrepresentation.

Incarcerating mothers replicates the colonial system of disrupting parenting, kinship, and community bonds. Placing their children in government care perpetuates adverse childhood experiences, relationship rupture, and risk of future involvement with the justice system, she said.

“Replicating systems that have been shown not to be in the best interest of either Indigenous people or effective to reduce crime or improve public safety, have to be re-examined and with the right people at the table and the right people speaking into the situation,” she said.

About the Author: Binny Paul

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